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The Essential Van Til — The Neo-Orthodox View of the Knowledge of God

In his writings, Van Til used what has now become a defunct moniker to describe an early 20th century theological movement surrounding Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. That moniker is “neo-orthodox.” Space prevents us from getting into a history of the term here, but suffice it to say that the expression has come under significant scrutiny today and has been all but abandoned by Barth scholarship. In Van Til’s day it was a helpful term to denote in a very broad fashion a group of theologians who – on the surface anyhow – seemed to have a good deal in common.

I for one am glad the term is losing favor, especially when applied to Barth.[1] The term is more of a misnomer and does not accurately capture Barth’s very complex thought.[2] I’m not sure what label would be better instead, especially because Barth and Brunner (not to mention Bultmann) all went in very different directions as their lives and careers advanced through the years. I am unsure a catch term would be helpful, other than perhaps the most broad “20th century Protestant theology,” or whatnot. Barth’s thought is so sui generis I wonder if the best word we can use today is simply “Barthian” to describe his thought as that of those who followed him.

I say all this because the next quote from Van Til I want to share uses the older term “neo-orthodox.” I preface the quote with the above to put at ease the minds of advocates of Barth’s theology that I am aware of the problematic nature of the term and that in quoting Van Til here I am in no way desirous of keeping the term alive. But also, for those who are reading this outside from the Barthian fold, you should be aware of the now defunct term so that, hopefully, you don’t use it in polite company and unduly offend your friends.

This quote is from Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel:

The neo-orthodox view of the relation of God to man is based on the idea that since man cannot have a “systematic,” i.e., purely rationalist knowledge of God, he must, in purely irrationalist fashion, fall back on the notion that any “systematic” interpretation of God’s “revelation” is nothing more than a “pointer” toward something of which man knows nothing. That is to say, the neo-orthodox view of God’s relation to man is based on the modern, particularly the post-Kantian, philosophical notion of truth as being nothing but a limiting concept. Man is surrounded by an ultimate void and he must direct the “flashlight” of his intellect into impenetrable mist. (xlviii)

Allow me to put Van Til’s point in other words. The Barthian position is that since man cannot have comprehensive and infallible knowledge of God (since man is temporal, limited, and sinful) that means that man cannot have any direct knowledge of God at all. Because man cannot have rationalist knowledge of God (i.e., comprehensive and infallible) then he can only have knowledge of God in an “irrationalist” way. That irrationalist way is the way of “limiting concepts.” Van Til elsewhere will advocate for a proper, biblical view of limiting concepts. But here he is attacking what he sees as an anti-Christian view of limiting concepts. On that view God becomes a kind of unknown place holder in one’s pursuit of knowledge. According to Kant, and those around him, God is an unknown which we can know exists only because of our experiences. In other words, I have certain experiences which can be explained only if there is a God back of them.

But I cannot know God directly, that is, by any direct reception of information about God from God. The best I can do is point the flashlight of my intellect into the darkness, and seeing only darkness conclude that because of the darkness there must be a God out there.

But Barth is not as skeptical as Kant. For Barth God does reveal himself. But revelation is not something we ourselves have direct access to. Revelation is Jesus Christ and him alone. Man – in the humanity of Christ – has access to the knowledge of God only in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is himself both the divine giver of revelation and the human receiver of revelation. We can only see Jesus Christ by faith through the witness of Scripture and the church’s proclamation. My experience with revelation is only from afar, and at that only secondary and indirect.

For Van Til this is an anti-Christian view of mystery. Van Til affirms mystery, over against rationalism. But he advocate a Christian and Reformed view of mystery. That view says God is not known to man unless and to the extent that God reveals himself to man. In this way, God is incomprehensible – that is, he cannot be known fully or on the basis of man’s intellect itself. But God is apprehensible, that is he can be known only through a sovereign and gracious act of condescension whereby he makes himself known to us.

Barth (and others) rightly rejects the rationalist view of the knowledge of God (i.e., Aquinas, Gordon Clark, etc). But in their correct rejection they go to the opposite extreme and conclude that since we cannot know God rationalistically (i.e., comprehensively) then we cannot know God at all, at least not directly. We can only know him indirectly through limiting concepts (i.e., as a place holder that makes sense of my experience).

[1] Barth himself rejected the label, see CD III.3, xii. For more on why the label should be dismissed see Bruce McCormack’s Critically-Realistic, 24-28.

[2] For more information about this see my blog post here at Reformed Forum.


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